Fx’s American Crime Story
Season 2, Episode 5: “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Written by Tom Rob Smith
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “House by the Lake” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Descent” – click here
June of 1995 in Milan, Italy.
Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramirez) is discussing his coming out – with an upcoming article in the Advocate – with sister Donatella (Penélope Cruz). He wants to tell the world. Of course his sister’s not entirely thrilled. “But this is not about you,” her brother reminds her. We see that Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) and Donatella, as usual, don’t see eye-to-eye on this, either. The sister thinks she’s being pragmatic, and brother just wants to live his life freely.
But we know what WILL happen – “how ugly the world can be,” like Donatella says. She doesn’t know that Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) will come along, though she fears something of his kind coming. Needless to say I’m on Gianni’s side. Still, knowing what we know, and the men Cunanan was targeting, it’s hard not to wish maybe Versace would’ve waited a little bit longer. Despite it all, the designer sees his new lease on life after illness as an opportunity to truly live for the first time.
Skip ahead to April 23rd, 1997. Four days before Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) is murdered. His killer, Cunanan, is busy conning around the country, injecting drugs along the way. Right now he’s in San Diego. He already has a shrine built on his wall to Versace – the Advocate article’s long since been printed.
In Minnesota, Jeff Trail – a Naval officer – is living a civilian life. His whole family is military, he event went to Annapolis. Maybe giving up the military has something to do with the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. At work, Jeff gets a message from none other than Cunanan, who needs a ride from the airport.
Jeff meets David Madson (Cody Fern) there; the two know he’s a conman, yet they feel bad for him. Neither of the men want to spend time with Andrew, so it’s awkward. Not to mention the soon-to-be-killer ‘accidentally’ sent a postcard to Jeff’s dad, alerting people to Jeff possibly being gay. Andrew goes back with David to his apartment and proposes. His proposal’s rejected.
Jeff goes to stay with his sister Laura (Tara Summers), avoiding his supposed friend. Laura wants her brother to come out and feels Andrew threatened him with that postcard, it was no accident. She demands that little brother tell their parents believing they love him and won’t be upset. So terribly tragic to watch him on his way to be an uncle when we know, in a couple days, he’ll be murdered brutally.
Out for the night, David meets up with a co-worker, and Andrew’s making things near unbearably tense. The man who’ll become a murderer in a matter of days is utterly fixated on David, he’s determined to make him come out of the closet. On the dance floor David tells his friend, once and for all: “We can‘t get married.”
And so Andrew goes back to Trail’s apartment the next evening with the place to himself. He looks around for any secrets. Notably, there’s a picture of Jeff and David together prominently on his dresser. But Cunanan comes across the guy’s old Navy uniform, and he puts it on; perfect for a chameleon like him. Inside the uniform’s case is also a VHS tape, which is a video about “gays in the military” – it’s brutal, containing several uses of the word “faggot.” What’s most compelling is that one of the blacked out, hidden face-talking heads interviewed on the video is Trail.
Go back: November of 1995. We’re on the U.S.S. Gridley docked in San Diego. A young guy’s beaten to the floor for being gay and brushing up against another man. Trail stops it. That night, a bunch of the guys give the gay guy a blanket party. Again, Trail stops it, and he sees the pain of the young man; because he knows it, too. He holds the guy close, which another man notices.
And so this begins trouble for Trail, as rumours spread. One guy gets caught hooking up, so he’s given a chance to name the names of other gay men he’s hooked up with and he won’t be dishonourably discharged. Problem is, he doesn’t know them all by name, not even by face; he remembers tattoos. Here, we see some of the worst psychological violence done to gay men by society. Jeff decides he’ll secretly remove his own tattoo to prevent being outed. Except he can’t bring himself to cut it off his body. Soon, Trail is called to see his captain, and he’s given a book on homosexual conduct policy. But no search for tattoos. How dehumanising it all is for a gay man like Jeff. It’s just horrible.
Then one night Jeff puts on his officer’s uniform, hangs a belt around a pipe in the locker room, and prepares to hang himself. At the last minute he decides against it. He goes out to a gay club for the first time instead. This is where he meets Cunanan, who seems really sweet and fun. The two drink and they talk together at a table. Everything seems so normal, so comfortable. Little does Trail know. This is right before CBS is set to interview him for that tape we saw earlier; he’s compelled to work for change, whereas Andrew thinks nothing will ever change.
In a hotel room, Gianni is about to tell the world he’s gay, loud and proud. Across the country in a motel room, Jeff is doing his own interview – forced into shadow, not allowed to tell the world he’s gay, only from behind darkness. Such a poignant contrast in one scene. Flawlessly written. Each man gives their interview, and they’re worlds apart showing that even amongst a marginalised community privilege and power(/$) can make the difference between who can and who cannot come out of the closet.
Cut ahead again to April 27th, 1997. In Minnesota, Andrew is still at the apartment when Jeff gets back, not happy to see the state his place is in. This begins quite a confrontation between the two. And this is day, sadly, Trail winds up dying. “You have no honour,” he tells Cunanan. Such depressing irony.
Andrew leaves, taking Jeff’s gun, and this precipitates the events to come, what we’ve already witnessed. Every moment that passes Cunanan’s psychopathy emerges further, leading to the murder of Trail; the killing that will kick off a serial killer. Worst of all, as one life ends another begins when Jeff’s sister goes into labour. More ugly irony.
This is THE BEST EPISODE of American Crime Story, hands down. I loved Season 1, and I’m loving Season 2 – which gets better every episode. But this was just spectacular, drawing together so many of the links in the Cunanan-Versace story to a wider societal issue surrounding the lack of acceptance for homosexuals. Brilliantly written, and it’s a true American tragedy.
“Descent” is next week. Buckle up for more.